THOUGHTS ON

Should You Go to Art School?

by Chris Duesing

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My Experience

I desperately wanted to go to art school after graduating high school. As soon as I enthusiastically shared my plans with anyone, they immediately jumped on the issue of money, and how I wouldn’t make any. It is impractical they said, unreasonable, and frankly a little selfish.

What a crushing response. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life, and the people that mattered the most to me couldn’t share in it. But if I stopped for a moment, and considered it from their perspective, they had a point.

School costs money, living at school costs money (housing, food, etc.), art supplies cost money. During this time you are not bringing in much if any money, relative to the cost of the degree, so you need to find a way to cover all of these costs. Savings? Grants? Loans? And what about after you graduate, isn’t that how most people justify taking on the burden and debt of an education?

It makes sense in a way to think of college in terms of an investment. If one was considered purchasing a home, a very similar kind of math, does one take on a huge debt now to obtain an asset (house, degree), knowing that it will by some metric be worth more later?

While home ownership generally looks good on paper, depending on where the market is when you are considering buying, an art degree tends to look terrible by comparison. You may very well be headed towards a lifetime of paying back a debt that didn’t help you get a job that you couldn’t have gotten with nothing more than a high school degree they tell you.

This is more or less what everyone keeps telling you right? Here you are, finally approaching some semblance of freedom, with the weight of seemingly choosing your entire future, and you’re excited to just spread your wings and follow your dreams… and everyone is shitting on it. I know how you feel!

The thing I haven’t told you to this point, is that I am at the time of writing this 46 years old. Back in 1993 when I graduated high school, desperately wanting to go to school for art, I went in to advertising instead. It was my parents attempt at a compromise. A creative, yet practical career. Advertising isn’t a hugely lucrative field either, at least not in one’s early career, but it makes a lot more sense on paper than “artist”. Nowadays a similar path, and potentially even a bit more lucrative, might be graphic design. In fact it probably makes more direct use of your art skills.

Looking back, it was a false choice.

This is something that parents and guidance counselors don’t tend to emphasize. A bachelors degree is in many ways just a credential, more than it is job training. You don’t graduate college knowing everything you will need to know to work, even in your degree field. Often a degree is simply a way for an employer to know that a qualified institution has put you through your paces, and that you are the kind of person who is able to commit to and carry through a very large goal. College is a lot more work than high school, and you are on your own to manage your time and work in a way you have never been. So once you have a degree from a respected school, you can often work in a career that was not your major.

That is not to say that some employers, for some positions, won’t scoff at an art degree as well. But a good job, a creative job, will acknowledge and understand the unique set of skills that an art education provides. Are these jobs well paying? On average no, not to start, but they can be enough to pay your bills while you chart your own career path.

But here’s the thing. I tool the traditional path. I actually dropped out of advertising and took up programming. But now, 28 years later, I have finally decided to do what I always wanted. To be fair my financial situation now is very different than it was back then. And while it shouldn’t be the only thing you base your decision on, it shouldn’t be something you dismiss either.

Having the Facts

At the end of the day it is your decision, but I think the naysayers make some good points. If you find yourself simply being defensive or dismissive, because you’ve already “made up your mind”, you are doing a disservice to future you. The you that is going to have to live with your decision. So take a moment and do a thought experiment; if this is my circumstance in 5, 10, 15+ years, will I be happy?

NEW

You are considering art school. You really “want” to go to art school, but you aren’t sure if you “should”. You are being pulled between the desire you feel to do something you feel like is your calling, and the external forces pushing you to consider more “practical” options. What you need is a complete walk through of all of your options so you can make a rational decision that is right for you. I am here to help.

If we assume you want to go, and that going would make you happy, then we need to address the practicality. So let’s start by laying out the up front costs, typical career paths and salaries, and your motivations and goals. Once you have a good handle on those things you can make a decision about how to move forward. If you decide art school is right for you, we will discuss how to pick the right one for you.

Cost of Art School

Art school costs money, a lot of money. Most people have to take out loans. Will working as an artist allow you to pay that money back?

Careers in the Arts

One way or another you have to make money to live. Unless you don’t, in which case you should skip ahead to the “best art schools for you section” you lucky dog. Now, for the rest of us, what you are going to be when you grow up is a central part of the discussion.

No degree in any field guarantees you will be able to find work in that field. Finding a job in your career field is no guarantee you will make enough money to live on. However, getting a Computer Science degree from Stanford certainly puts you in an advantageous place compared to lets say a degree in Underwater Basket Weaving from Phoenix University. As ridiculous as it sounds, let’s actually spend a minute dissecting this. It will provide us with an example that is less tied up with our own situation. Perspective often helps make things clearer.

Computer Science is a fancy way of saying programming. Programming is a very practical, demonstrable skill. Stanford is a very reputable school, particularly in STEM. In the current job market, programmers are in high demand.

Basket Weaving is a demonstrable skill, but the underwater part is not. Unless you are doing it as a performance piece, it is not very practical. Baskets generally are considered a commodity good. You would be competing with people in the job market from all over the world, many of whom will have substantially lower costs of living.

TL;DR: Not only do the skills that you learn matter, the Job Market matters too.

So what about the arts? No job in the arts is going to compete with a CS degree from Stanford in terms of demand or salary. However, while some arts degrees might as well be underwater basket weaving in terms of market demand, some are actually fairly sought after! There are also plenty of careers that an art degree can prepare you for, that aren’t direct applications of a demonstrable physical skill. Let’s explore.

Employment

A critical piece of the puzzle that we haven’t talked about, really comes down to if it matters to you whether or not you graduate and “get a job” vs graduate and create your own art on your own terms. Meaning, do you just want to do something creative, within a larger team, and get a paycheck and go home at the end of the day? Or do you want to follow the romantic notion of the starving artist, toiling away alone all day in the studio, hoping their gallerist can sell a piece before the rent is due this month. Because if you desire, or are at least ok with, the former, then you may want to focus your creative talents on things the market will reward.

In Demand Arts Degrees

If I could summarize in one word, I would say “design”. Whether its working planning weddings, or for IDEO re-conceptualizing the lounge chair, or at a web startup building the user interface of the next great app, designers are always in demand.

Not So In Demand Arts Degrees

Technical skills that employers don’t need might include things like oil painting, clay sculpture, or public performance art. Not to say those skills might not be useful, simply that there are very few listings for such work on indeed.com. If you choose to go this route, you will need to get in the drivers seat in terms of managing your income, aka self employment.

Self Employment

This is the path of the studio artist. Want to paint away your days? Better make sure you take some classes on financial planning, marketing, and business strategy. You’re probably going to need an accountant. You are going to want to learn to network, and probably get a gallerist.

Don’t get me wrong, designers can also be their own boss! This is not only possible in web design, but is also the standard for things like interior design. Photography is another field where most practitioners (whether they went to school for it or not) are generally self employed.

Self employment may seem a bit more romantic, but be aware it is sometimes more common in these fields because the work is sporadic and the companies that would ideally like to employ you don’t want to have to fire you every six months, or have to pay you benefits if they can get away with it.

The Hybrid Model

Get a day job, work on and sell your art on the side.

You would probably be dismayed and shocked to know that this is the career path of most studio artists.

If this doesn’t sound off putting to you, the only question left is; how close do you want your day job to be to your personal work?

Plenty of painters have worked in galleries making frames, hanging other artists work, getting coffee, etc.. Think of it as a paid internship with networking. You get to learn how the art world works while making connections and continuing your own practice.

But you still may not be able to pay the rent. You may need to go further afield from something so directly tied to the art world, but there is always foundation work, grant writing, teaching (highly competitive these days). Or further; truck driving, construction, telemarketing, reality tv star. What this all boils down to is that…

There is no career path for artists

I’ve only scratched the surface of paths you can take. “Living and Sustaining a Creative Life” by Sharon Louden is an interview with 40 artists who have all walked this path in their own way. I highly recommend it. You need to decide if that is a way you really want to live your life.

The Numbers

With the above in mind, you can now hit up a job site and start figuring things out. A studio artist will likely make somewhere around $0 their first year. An entry level designer for a tech startup is probably looking at $50k+. Keep in mind Uncle Sam is going to take a solid third of that once every deduction is accounted for. Next you will want to decide where you want to live. There are plenty of cost of living calculators online. Finally you need to account for the cost of the education and student loans. Let’s run a couple hypothetical scenarios.

The average cost of college in the United States, according to educationdata.org, is $35,720 per year. If you can manage to stay very disciplined and finish your degree in 4 years, this represents $142,880 total cost. The average student loan interest rate, according to credible.com, is 4.66%. The standard repayment period for federal loans is 10 years. This will leave you with a $1,492 a month payment.

According to owlguru.com, the average starting salary for a fine artist is $20,020 to $31,750 per year. Let’s stick with averages and say $25,885/yr which breaks down to $2157 a month.

Now, some simple math says that leaves $665 a month. Uncle Sam is going to grab $250 of that right off the bat, plus some more for FICA, SS, etc.. So basically you’re now trying to rent an apartment, buy food, pay for transportation, clothing, utilities and perhaps go out (probably not) on $400 a month? The average rent for a 1 bedroom apartment across the nation is $1,234.43 according to businessinsider.com. The average rent in NYC is $3374 according to rentcafe.com.

Reality Check Time

This is why everyone looks concerned when you say you want to go to art school.

Take a moment, and seriously look at those numbers.

Can you imagine your life like that? Scraping by and hungry, juggling bills, not going out with your friends?

One of two things is going to happen.

Either way, you have your answer. And I don’t blame you for one second if you want out. There are plenty of creative, interesting and fulfilling careers in design and other fields that pay reasonably well.

Just keep in mind, speaking of hybrids, a lot of those career paths can begin with an art degree! Art degree doesn’t mean you have to be an ‘artist’ for the rest of your life. And I think that is the part that parents, teachers, etc. forget. Will it prepare you to be a doctor or lawyer? No. Can it be a first step in administration, not for profits, public health, business, entrepreneurship, design, teaching, etc.? Absolutely.

Choose Your Own Adventure

You’ve decided to go to art school, now it’s time to dive in to picking the best art school for you.

You’ve decided not to go to art school, now it’s time to start your journey down the path of a self taught artist.

Further Reading
Chris Duesing
Author
Chris Duesing

I am a photographer, writer, entrepreneur, and programmer living in the great city of Chicago. I love to solve problems with technology and share what I have learned along the way.